Gettin' the Band Back Together
Ken Davenport's newest musical endeavor fills George Street Playhouse with Jersey pride.
After Hurricane Sandy sent a surge of camaraderie down the Turnpike, New Jersey seems to have waded through its reality television-induced identity crisis, finally embracing a character that falls somewhere between its bipolar "Garden State" and "Dirty Jerz" personalities. Broadway producer/librettist Ken Davenport has shrewdly tapped into this well of newfound pride and self-discovery with his musical Gettin' the Band Back Together, which makes its world premiere at New Brunswick's George Street Playhouse almost exactly one year after Sandy shook the coast. No, it's not a work of brilliant artistry, but then again, neither is Jersey. True to the land, John Rando directs a production that is crude, loud, and blunt, yet, full of heart, making you fall in love with every last one of its bumps and blemishes.
The Wedding Singer meets School of Rock as 40-year-old Mitch Martino (Mitchell Jarvis) moves back into his childhood home in suburban Sayreville, NJ with his mother (played by two-time Tony nominee Alison Fraser) after being fired from his high-paying investment-banking job. Luckily he's not the only failure off exit 124 of the Garden State Parkway — as he finds all of his high-school chums just where he left them before trading in his rock-star dreams for a 401(k). Brandon Williams makes for a perfect Jersey villain as Tygen Billows, a simple-minded, juiced-up Guido who somehow came to own half the town (an authentically bland suburban world created by set designer Derek McLane) while continuing to lead his high-school band, Mouthfeel, like an overgrown teenager. When Tygen threatens to foreclose on Mitch's mother's home unless he agrees to settle a 20-year-old score at an upcoming Battle of the Bands competition, Mitch collects (almost) all of the original members of Juggernaut, his motley crew of high-school bandmates, to take down their old rivals.
An original plot is admittedly not among the show's finest attributes, with a one-by-one We're-Off-to-See-the-Wizard-style gathering of the band members and the traditional montage of cringe-worthy auditions. And of course, there are the climactic final performances at the Battle of the Bands (complete with rock-and-roll-lighting pyrotechnics by Ken Billington), during which we bite our nails waiting to see if good will prevail over evil — though even if it doesn't, everyone will at least walk away with a girlfriend, so it's really a win-win.
But not to worry. Davenport and his fellow book writers, The Grundleshotz (an appropriately band-like moniker for a group of writers and performers that includes Sebastian Arcelus, Jay Klaitz, Emily McNamara, and Sarah Saltzberg, among others) are in on the joke and take frequent jabs at their own clichés. The only trying task throughout the musical is getting oriented in the appropriate decade. While set in present day, this show harkens back to 1990s garage bands, who, for some reason, have taken style tips from 1980s MTV music videos, leading to a three-decade bundle of aesthetic confusion (costume designer Gregory Gale may have taken slightly too much inspiration from his work on Broadway's Rock of Ages).
The show's charm comes primarily from its group of lovably quirky featured characters, all of whom are careful not to fall into the death trap of overdoing the already heavy-handed camp. Adam Monley is awkwardly adorable as a showtune-loving cop, Michael "Sully" Sullivan; Manu Narayan offers a strong comedic performance as lonely Indian dermatologist Robbie Patel; Evan Daves channels Justin Bieber as the prepubescent Ricky Bling; and Jay Klaitz stands out as Bart Vickers, an overweight, underqualified public-school math teacher who brings the house down with a hilarious act-two showstopper. Jarvis, meanwhile, leads the band of misfits admirably. Though a nonconventional hero type, he exudes an understated and charming authority that carries the show, with a silky smooth voice to boot. He works well opposite Fraser, who, as one of the most seasoned cast members, is given surprisingly few featured moments, but works the Jersey cougar schtick when given her chance to shine.
Tying the production together is a score of catchy tunes by Mark Allen filled with plenty of blunt humor. It may not be Sondheim's prose, but it'll muster plenty of laughs and is sure to be rolling around in your head when you wake up the next morning. Though the book has clearly taken a few trips through the streamliner, it's maintained an endearing rough-around-the-edges quality, as if we were truly watching an old group of friends rediscover the joy of jamming in a garage with their old high-school buds. Whether the humor is too finely tailored to a Jersey audience to transfer to a New York stage, however, is yet to be seen. At the very least, this show may convince a few Jerseyans to quit claiming they live in the "Tri-state area" and wear their Parkway exit numbers with pride.